In the later half of the 20th Century and the present day Marvel Comics has always prided itself on never marginalizing a particular group or ethnicity. We live in a diverse culture and as such those of us enshrine our multiculturalism and do not judge those based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or creed. However, like many long standing running publications, Marvel Comics (or rather it's predecessors Timely and Atlas Comics) depicted visible minorities in a way that, for the times, were considered socially acceptable however by the standards of today are considered to be offensive. The purpose of this article is to identify these times and put them into a historical context for the purposes of understanding them as such. Also we will take a look at areas where Marvel became a champion of civil rights and the historical contexts of those milestone moments.
Timely Era (1939-1950)
Prior to the United States entering World War II the primary racial stereotypes were usually the depictions of individuals of African origins and Germans. African-Americans were often depicted with pitch black skin, large eyes, and bright red lips. They spoke in Ebonics and always participated in ethnic stereotypes such as playing the harmonica, singing Dixie Land Jazz, and eating watermelon. They always were depicted as carrying on menial labor tasks such as janitors, butlers, waiters, chauffeurs, and other service level jobs. Notable characters include the infamous Young Allies character Whitewash Jones. In a historical context, these characters were fashioned much like Minstrel Show characters. These blatantly racist plays were popularized in the late 1800's during the Civil War, and by the 1930's the character archetype was seeing a resurgence in American pop culture, notably in Disney Cartoons and other entertainment targeted at a younger audience. This depiction of African-Americans soon was phased out of texts around the 1950's as African-American characters were mostly phased out of story-telling until the 1960's, polarized by the Civil Rights movement.
Africans were usually depicted as either savages, cannibals, and extremely violent towards Caucasians that would invade their territory. Alternatively, some African tribes were depicted as being easily led by Caucasians that were usually revered with an almost god like worship. Most notably of these characters was the golden age Ka-Zar who was referred to in early issues of Marvel Mystery Comics as a "White God".
It is noteworthy to identify that common terminology for African-Americans and African natives were referred to as either "Negros" or "Blacks". At no point in any of the texts were any terms used that are considered offensive racial slurs for the time. For the most part, African-Americans were depicted as good natured people, all be it clumsy ones. There are a few rare exceptions with character such as the Ape and Oldow that were depicted as savage ape-like creatures and were depicted in a disparaging portrayal as being ruthless killers. However, they were a very rare exception.
Germans during this time were mostly stereotypes as being Nazi stooges. With names like "Captain von Spitz", "Admiral Achhimmel" and other names that were parodies of the German language. Their manner of speaking was mostly depicted as bumbling, cowardly, easily duped. Especially after America's entry into World War II. Historical figures such as Adolf Hitler and other high ranking Nazi officials were often depicted as children having temper tantrums and engaging in childish behavior. Given the atrocities that were occurring in Europe at the hands of the Nazis, this is not an unwarranted judgement. On the same token, Italians during their involvement with the Axis forces during World War II were depicted as equally as bungling and cowardly and their accents mocked and spelled phonetically.
By 1942, there were many publications that depicted the Japanese in very disparaging manner. Usually depicted as having literally yellow skin, buck toothed, with tiny eyes -- usually pushed together closely -- or wearing thick black rimmed glasses. Phonetical word play was often used, and Japanese "text" which were nothing but incomprehensible symbols were often used in text balloons. The pronunciation of the letter "r" to sound like the letter "l" was commonly used. Racial slurs such as "Jap" and "Nip" were frequently used and often Japanese characters were referred to as "Yellow Bellied". It originally was a term used in the old west to call out a coward, but found new usage during World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor as it was commonly agreed upon among Americans at the time that the attack was cowardly. Back stabbing, or sneak attacks or referring to one as a sneak had connotations in a disparaging way by association with Japanese. From a historical context, this all came as result of Americas reaction to the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. This depiction of Japanese characters was frequently used in war comics, and super-hero stories involving Japanese spies, or battling Japanese forces. One of the most frequent characters to fight the Japanese was the Sub-Mariner who even went so far in Sub-Mariner Comics #6 disguise himself as a Japanese person by jutting out his top teeth.
Other notable racial stereotypes were the depiction of Chinese as being slanted eyes, wearing rice hats, and having their text written phonetically to the stereotypical Chinese accent. As the Chinese were considered an ally during of the United States during World War II, the Chinese were always depicted as being defenseless and in need of constant rescuing from the United States. Conversely, Canadians and Alaskans (as Alaska was not part of the United States until the 1950's) were frequently depicted as miners, lumberjacks, and fur traders, often speaking in thick French accents.
While homosexuality was not overtly spoken or mentioned in texts, fears that such man-boy partnerships such as the Human Torch and Toro and Captain America and Bucky were of concern. In the later part of the 1940's there were introductions of female counterparts to these duos by way of Sun Girl and making Betty Ross the female sidekick to Captain American named Golden Girl.
Atlas Era (1950-1960)
The Atlas Era saw many of the same depictions of World War II enemies, namely Japanese, German and Italian stereotypes however they were more subdued and less overtly racist.
With Communism and Russians and Chinese being considered enemies during the start of the Cold War, a lot of racial stereotypes were directs at these ethnicity. However, for the most part they were depicted as spies or espionage agents feeding the Cold War xenophobia that was rampant at the time.
African-Americans for the most part were ultimately phased out of many of Atlas's publications however their depiction were also somewhat stereotypical all be it much more muted than their depictions in the 40s.
Many of the Western titles that came out depicted Native Americans as red skinned savages that spoke in a broken English that is a common stereotype of the indigenous American people. This was a common depiction until the end of the 70's.
Marvel Comics - 1960s
At the dawn of the Marvel age of comics the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in America and ultimately, the civic minded writing staff eventually worked this into their stories. For the most part, African-American characters were seldom seen in Marvel publications but slowly made their appearances in backgrounds. Notably, they began appearing in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's run of Amazing Spider-Man, being portrayed as police men and working for the Daily Bugle.
Racism as a form of violence first appeared in Avengers #32 in 1966 with the creation of the racist group the Sons of the Serpent (inspired by the KKK) and the introduction of one of Marvel's most predominant African-American characters Bill Foster the scientist who eventually became Giant-Man. It became a long standing editorial mandate that racism was never glorified and often vilified. Racist characters were always depicted as being in the wrong.
Other prominent African-American characters such as Joe Robertson and the Black Panther also made their appearances in this era. Often these characters were depicted as successful men in their own rights, with real careers and were highly intelligent.
Shortly after his depiction in 1966, the Black Panther was briefly renamed the Black Leopard to distance the character from the revolutionary leftist group that was highly popularized at the time. However this motion change was quickly reversed as Marvel decided that any connection between the comic book character and the group were a stretch at best.
Still marginalized were nationalities that were associated with Communism. Notably Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuba. Usually with characters speaking in a phonetic stereotype. The worst of these being the depictions of Cubans with characters such as the Crusher. These stereotypes were mostly in mockery due to Americas standpoint in Communism, and were much more muted than the depictions of the Japanese, Germans and Italians were during World War II.
Ultimately, the characters the X-Men, due to being mutants, began playing role as a broader commentary on prejudice and racism and the dangers inherited by them, however these themes were slight and were not as heavily reinforced as they were in later years.
With the popularization of Blaxploitation films and Kung-Fu epics led to the advent of many African-American, Chinese, and Japanese characters that were depicted as heroes. Old steretypes were mostly replaced with modern exploitation elements.
Notable characters were Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Shang-Chi and Colleen Wing. However stereotypical trappings from the 70's era were rife among the characters, particular those who were African-American. This was usually reserved for villains such as the Hypno-Hustler, Black Mariah, and Mr. Fish.
For the most part racist characters were always depicted as bumbling rednecks, fools, and the stuff of super-villager.
Not only was the there an emphasis against racism, writers such as Steve Gerber also tackled the issues of radical movements on both sides of the argument -- reinforcing a theme of peaceful co-existence and a strong anti-extremism message.
The 1970's were a time of great social activism and protest against the government, as Vietnam was an unpopular war and scandals such as Watergate, Marvel Comics often chose to champion the underdog and the marginalized adding a dimension of humanity to their characters that the competitors could not match.
The 1980's saw even more of an introduction of ethnic characters into the Marvel Universe without any racial stereotypes being perpetuated. As time progressed it became more and more muted although there were some exceptions. Even previously marginalized Communist (or formerly communist) nationalities were not so harshly depicted by means of their racial or ethnic origins.
With the scope and range of characters expanding beyond the United States there was more research done in conflicts and ideas, and of religions and cultures around the world to add an air of authenticity to their characters.
On notable discrimination of sorts was the depiction of homosexuality in comics up to this date, or rather the lack of mention. The first attempt at introducing an openly gay character came in from John Byrne's Alpha Flight run. Alpha Flight #7 was an attempt to reveal that the character Northstar was gay. However, this was downplayed and the character was not full "outted" until Alpha Flight #106.
The 80's also saw the full adoption as Mutants as being a blanket minority group that is discriminated against. Uncanny X-Men #196 in particular would take a turn in the story narrative where writer Chris Claremont comparing the term "Mutie" as a racial slur akin to "Nigger".
The 90s saw a mostly neutral depiction of races within the Marvel Universe, often stories delving into taking down of racist characters and race relations and unity. Most racial story lines in the early 90s were centered around drug and gang culture which was a recurring problem in the United States during the time, notably in the Los Angeles area.
The issue or race became a term of polarization in many of the texts following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Which took aim at religious extremism, Islam, Muslims, the War on Terror, and various other issues being hot button topics that polarized a number of Marvels flag ship titles at the time. Notably Captain America Vol 4, Punisher MAX, and many of Marvels Ultimate titles. Introduction of Muslim characters were topical, such as the X-Man character Dust who wears a full burqa. Muslim extremists were often the target of Marvel's more satirical titles at the time such as X-Statix.
Religious extremism wasn't only limited to Muslims either, radical Christian anti-mutant groups such as the Choir were introduced in the pages of the X-Men.
Homosexuality was fully out of the closet and embraced, with many diverse gay and lesbian characters appearing, and adding more dimension for bigoted antagonists for Marvels various heroes and supporting cast to face.
Marvel's Ultimate line took great leaps by reinventing some of Marvel's flag-ship characters as having different ethnic backgrounds. Such as Nick Fury.
Other social issues that were covered was the genocide in Darfur depicted in Squadron Supreme: Hyperion VS Nighthawk.